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Tow Test: Pontiac Aztek

March 1, 2001

“Hey, dad! Where’s the tent?” inquired my 11-year-old son, Steven, a fan of Pontiac’s outlandish Aztek. Even without the tent, an aftermarket accessory, my son loves the concept of a road-going adventure machine that’s ready in a flash for camping expeditions, clandestine waterbike excursions, and spur-of-the-moment Taco Bell invasions. Never mind its weird wrapper, the Aztek is more fun than Harry Potter’s goblet of fire.

One would think Pontiac concocted its Aztek recreational vehicle by whirring bits of its Montana minivan in a blender. A sprinkle of all-wheel drive, a dollop of twisted sheet metal – and out pours the strangest-looking vehicle since AMC’s Pacer. Sales to date have been underwhelming, perhaps because Aztek prices start at a $22,000.

But is there a workhorse hidden under the Aztek’s disguise? We hooked up a 19′ Checkmate runabout and set out for the wilds (well, okay, rural roads) of southeastern Michigan. That 2,340-pound payload is well within the Aztek’s 3,500-pound towing capacity. The Aztek has the soul of a minivan, but add the optional all-wheel-drive running gear and it can easily handle medium-duty towing missions.

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The good news – this rig drives surprisingly well. The 3.4-liter V-6 under the hood delivers only 185 hp, but there’s ample oomph at nearly idle to get you rolling ahead of the crowd at a traffic light. The transmission shifts smoothly without complaint under load, and the wide track provides stable resistance to the loaded trailer’s feints and darts over irregular pavement. The steering lacks good feedback, but it holds a straight path even in crosswinds.

At my steep and slippery launch ramp, the Aztek’s all-wheel-drive system permitted only one revolution of front-wheel slippage before the rear traction kicked in to lift us high and dry. The combination of a low-enough first gear, a relatively loose torque converter, and an engine tuned for maximum off-idle tugging is ideal for yanking boats from a lake.

The Aztek’s interior is a bit over the top. Door panels offer zippered ditty bags; a cooler box doubles – albeit awkwardly – as the center console; and a grab handle sprouts out of the dash (I don’t know why). At night, the instrumentation glows molten orange.

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On the other hand, the Aztek seats five easily, with room to spare. Dump the rear seats and you have a fairly comfortable place for two to spend the night beyond a storm’s reach. The tailgate hinges up and down to facilitate loading inflatables, fuel tanks, or enough ski gear to support a pro team. Add the aftermarket tent and you can liquidate the beach condo. (Trade up to a bigger boat instead.) There’s also a rollout platform that you can use as a pallet for heavy cargo.

MODEL Pontiac Aztek
Engine 3.4-liter OHV V-6
Net hp/rpm 185/5200
Net torque (ft-lb/rpm) 210/4000
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Suspension Front Rear strut-type, coil springs control arms, coil springs
Wheelbase (in.) 108.3
Length (in.) 182.1
Width (in.) 73.7
Height (in.) 66.7 (plus roof rack)
Brakes Front Rear disc/disc; standard 4-wheel ABS
Tires Uniroyal Tiger Paw, P215/70SR-16 M+S
Curb weight (lbs.) 4,360
Towing capacity (lbs.) 3,500
Cargo capacity (max. cu. ft.) 94
Fuel capacity (gal.) 18.5
Observed towing fuel economy (avg. mpg 12
Price (as tested) $29,570

LAST WORD. Peel back the funky exterior and you’ll find a friendly companion that loves to tow.

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